Preview: AFC Championship Game

 

By Brandon Martin

How They Got Here

When it was said that three QBs ran the AFC, it wasn’t an exaggeration. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger have represented the AFC in the Superbowl in 12 of the last 13 Superbowls, and this year the latter two will go head to head to see who will make it 13 of the last 14.

Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots will face off to determine the champion of the AFC. These teams have been dominant for more than a decade, but who’ll take the crown and reign supreme this time?

Key Match Ups

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Malcolm Butler (90.2 PFF Grade) vs. Antonio Brown (89.0 PFF Grade)

Antonio Brown has become one of the most productive players in league history. Brown has hauled in 481 passes over the last 4 season, a mark exceeding Marvin Harrison’s record of 469 catches in a 4-year window. That is to say that Antonio catches a lot of footballs and not many teams have been able to stop him from doing that over a 7 year NFL career.

The Patriots secondary will be tasked with limiting Brown’s productivity Sunday. In all likelihood, the pats will throw a mixture of coverages at AB, but the primary cover man will be Malcolm Butler. Butler, a relative unknown until his famous game-winning pick at the goal line in SB 49, has become a staple of the New England defense. Earning a pro bowl invite in 2015, and a PFF second-team all pro selection this year, Butler has solidified himself as one of the Game’s best.

Malcolm Butler is as good an option as anyone to stop Antonio Brown, but also expect to see a lot of bracketing with Devin McCourtey and Patrick Chung to stem the speedy wide-out. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are known for being able to take away the opponent’s biggest weapon, but no one has ever figured out a formula to stop Brown yet. This “unmovable object vs unstoppable force” narrative just adds another level of intrigue to this game!

James Harrison (86.7 PFF Grade) vs. Nate Solder (87.6 PFF Grade)

James Harrison wasn’t nearly as productive this year as he has been in the past, but the 38-year-old veteran is still as import to the Steelers’ defense as ever. He was still able to produce five sacks this season and harass the QBs that Pittsburg faced this year.

Standing in his way, one of the most premier tackles in the game. Solder has been truly dominant this year as he has protected Tom Brady’s valuable blind side. Harrison has stepped up in big games and made key plays all year-long.

Will Solder protect his QB or will Harrison make his way into Brady’s bubble and force a game-changing hit?

Ross Cockrell (79.5 PFF Grade) vs. Julian Edelman (80.2 PFF Grade)

Edelman is one of the NFL’s shiftiest receivers. Often lining up in the slot, Edelman has a propensity for finding the gap underneath a coverage and exploiting it to create some run-after-catch yards.

Pittsburg’s Ross Cockrell will try to contain Brady’s go-to receiver in this game. Cockrell has bounced around the league in past years, but found a home in Pittsburgh as one of their better outside corners this season.

He can really secure his position with a lockdown performance against Edelman, who had over 1000 yards and 100 receptions. Both players love to chirp so the back and forth should be an interesting storyline throughout the night.

Players to Watch

New England Patriots:

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Tom Brady (98.6)

You would be hard pressed to talk about New England and not mention Tom Brady. Brady is as good as it gets when it comes to throwing a football and that statement will be true now and forever. Brady is Mr. Automatic and the numbers paint that picture. 28 touchdowns to 2 interceptions and an 112.2 QB rating this season.

Still not impressed? How about the fact he threw for 3554 yards this year in only 12 games. That’s 296 yards per contest. Good Luck stopping that Pittsburgh.

Don’t’a Hightower (85.4)

Hightower is listed as questionable, but New England better hope he is good to go as he is as good as it gets in the middle. He is a physical linebacker who can stop the running backs, defend against the pass, and rush the QB.

Hightower truly a jack-of-all-trades and will show his versatility throughout the game. He will likely be the key in stopping Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ ground game. Hightower can do this if he hits the line of scrimmage hard and forces Bell to pick a hole instead of skipping around and patiently waiting for a crease to open up.

Devin McCourty (90.3)

How many Free Safeties were there that were better than McCourty this year? According to ProFootballFocus.com, none. Yes, McCourty was as good as it gets this year. 83 tackles and one interception show that he has the ability to be all over the field and change the landscape of a game.

That is something he’ll have to do to limit the potential threat of Antonio Brown and the other Steelers weapons. McCourty could also play large in shadowing Le’Veon Bell as he often lines up in the slot and catches passes like a receiver.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers:

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Le’Veon Bell (89.2)

Honestly, is there a more complete running back in the game than Bell? He has the ability to rush for 200 yards and have 150 receiving yards in one game. He’s a do-it-all back, and he is a threat at all times.

Last week against the Chiefs, Bell ran for 170 yards against the stout KC defensive line. This week, Bell goes up against a much weaker defensive front ad he looks to have the game of his life in the biggest game of his career.

Ryan Shazier (79.7)

It’s not every day you see a linebacker that has the speed of a running back, but that’s what Shazier is. In fact, Shazier beat Antonio Brown, Sammie Coats and Markus Wheaton in a 40-yard race at a practice. So he’s fast, what else can he do?

Well, he hits hard, forcing three fumbles, and he’s sure handed, reeling in interceptions this season. Can he force Brady to make a mistake? We’ll find out on Sunday.

William Gay (85.5)

Gay might be Pittsburgh’s most experienced corner, but he’s also lost a step over the years. That doesn’t stop him from being one of the best tackling corners in the league.

Gay’s physicality is what makes him an important piece to this Pittsburgh secondary, especially when it comes to tackling the tank that is LeGarrette Blount. He will be important in disrupting the screen game that New England has made a killing off of in years prior.

The Verdict

These teams are both extremely talented, and both teams deserve to be where they are right now, but in the end, this game has to have a winner. Fortunately for New England, the flu found its way to the Pittsburgh locker room. Whether or not this will limit any players’ performance on Sunday is yet to be seen.

Regardless, New England possesses a much better defense, a much more consistent offense, and I believe they are held too much more strict standards which in the end will prove crucial to New England’s success.

Final New England 21 Pittsburgh 10

 

 

 

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